THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock


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British novelist Johncock's debut takes place on American soil—and in American airspace—at the peak of the space race, from 1947 to 1968.

Fictional Air Force test pilot Jim Harrison works in Muroc, California, at the future Edwards Air Force Base. He and his wife, Grace, struggle to accept infertility; are thrilled by a surprise pregnancy and parenthood; and drift away from each other after a tragic loss. Grace, who's grown accustomed to being alone as a pilot's wife, needs more from her husband after the death of their daughter. Instead, Harrison throws himself into his role as a member of the New Nine—the second class of astronauts and, more importantly, the first that will fly manned missions into space. Harrison's career leads him to interactions with real-life characters Gus Grissom, Jim Lovell, and Pancho Barnes. The novel moves quickly as a result of minimalist, quotation-mark–free dialogue. At times, multiple characters named Grace and Jim cause confusion—an awkward choice on the writer's part. Johncock's extensive research, as evidenced by his long list of book and film sources, is a double-edged sword. The novel gains significant life from Pancho Barnes, the kind of character who can't be invented, and Johncock's mastery of the jargon and mechanics of test piloting and space flight is impressive. However, the flight process and lingo can diminish focus on the characters. The space race is as much a character here as the Harrisons and their social circle, so much so that the people are sometimes overpowered by the mechanics. The book ends with things as they should be between Grace and Jim, but their happy ending is overshadowed by other astronauts' achievements.

An ideal read for history buffs and space race enthusiasts.

Pub Date: July 7th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-250-06664-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2015